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MLK III: What we can learn from Virginia decision to end the death penalty


“As the united South goes, so goes the nation.” These words by W.E.B. Du Bois explain the South’s strong influence on human rights issues in the United States. The South has often failed to pioneer change. Too frequently, its history of racial oppression and lynching has gone untold and unaddressed.

For far too long, policymakers have shied away from open and honest discussions about capital punishment’s deep connection to lynching, Jim Crow laws and racial oppression. Last month, the tide turned and we witnessed the demise of the death penalty in Virginia, the former home of the Confederacy.

With this step, Virginia shows us what is possible when we confront this country’s racist past, and acknowledge how racism permeates this country’s practices and laws.

Once this sordid history was laid to bare, a majority of lawmakers were willing to part ways with a practice that reflects a significant and shameful part of Virginia’s history. I applaud Gov. Ralph Northam for championing this effort. The dwindling number of states that continue to use the death penalty, especially in the South, should follow.

As a Black man, born and raised in the South, this issue is deeply personal to me. Not only was my father, Martin Luther King Jr., murdered, but my grandmother was also a victim of homicide. While many know the story of my father, years later, my grandmother was shot to death in our beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church. Both of these were heinous crimes, but despite our immeasurable grief, our faith and the racist roots of capital punishment led my family to reject the death penalty.

Martin Luther King III
You see, the death penalty was never intended to be used to give Black families like mine so-called justice or to show that society values Black life.

You see, the death penalty was never intended to be used to give Black families like mine so-called justice or to show that society values Black life. Getting the death penalty in response to wrongs committed against my loved ones would not bring them back; it would have only tied their legacy to a deeply racist system. 

Virginia’s history of racial discrimination in the death penalty is extensive. Going as far back as the 17th century, the state has used the death penalty significantly more against Blacks. Lawmakers claimed they needed the death penalty to placate white mobs who wanted to continue using lynchings to maintain racial control.

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Executions were so rare for whites that in 1858, when a white man was hanged, it was reported in Charleston as “the first occurrence of the kind ever known to have taken place within the county.”    

In 1899, a Black man named Noah Finley was convicted of robbing a former legislator in Pulaski. Despite his lawyer pleading for mercy, the demand for Finley to be hanged was so great that the law acquiesced. Finley was executed essentially by mob rule.

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Despite many changes to capital punishment laws over the years, race continues to influence who is convicted and sentenced to die. One study found that in Virginia, a defendant was more likely to face the death penalty if the victim was white than if the victim was Black.

Virginia, with 2nd-most executions of any state, abolishes death penalty

staff video, USA TODAY

If we shine a light on any of the other Southern states that were known for high rates of lynchings, we are likely to find plenty of similarities. Lawmakers in these states should also be prepared for their racist death penalty practices to be exposed for all to see.

I commend Northam and Virginia lawmakers.

When they were confronted with their own state’s immoral history, they did not look away. They did not hide or deny. Instead, they confronted Virginia’s racist past and vowed to do better. Ending capital punishment in Virginia is a decisive step toward the racial reckoning that our country desperately needs. The rest of the South should follow suit.

Martin Luther King III (@OfficialMLK3) is a global human rights activist and the chairman of the Drum Major Institute.




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